Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On Reducing Pandemic Risk

Congressional Record

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, we do not have to be reminded of the more than 50 million lives lost in the 1918 influenza pandemic, or the many thousands lost in the SARS, Ebola, MERS, and other recent infectious disease outbreaks to recognize that far more must be done to reduce the risk of catastrophic pandemics.  Rather than waiting until disease outbreaks occur, then scrambling at great expense for two or three years or however long it takes to develop a vaccine while countless people die, we need to act proactively.  It is worth noting that tens of millions of people have died and we still lack a vaccine against HIV.

Viral threats will continue to emerge at a rapidly accelerating pace in response to expanding global populations in the least developed countries, international travel, and human encroachment into wildlife habitat.  And we know that the vast majority of emerging viruses, like HIV, are zoonotic – infectious diseases that can spread between animals and humans.

In an effort to strengthen global capacity for detection and discovery of zoonotic viruses, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) initiated the PREDICT project in 2009.  Its goal was to identify new emerging viruses with pandemic potential and improve predictive modeling to better focus surveillance, data collection, and analytics to reduce the risk of animal viruses spilling over and spreading in human populations.  Through the collection and analysis of wildlife samples in areas of the world most at risk for zoonotic disease, PREDICT was able to discover disease pathogens at their source, rather than waiting for human infection.     

Over the past decade and through its work in more than 30 countries, PREDICT has identified hundreds of viruses and has estimated that there are more than 1.6 million unknown viral disease species in mammalian and avian populations, of which an estimated 600,000 to 850,000 have the potential to infect humans.  PREDICT has proven the feasibility of a global, systematic viral discovery program and paved the way for continued progress toward a more proactive approach to reducing pandemic risk.

As the PREDICT project comes to an end next year, USAID is exploring ways to build on its successful analytical and modeling work and is in the process of designing the next phase of programming to continue this critical effort.  It is my hope that others in the international community will use the lessons learned and techniques proven from PREDICT to inform their own efforts.

Currently, the international community often targets global health investments on infrastructure, institutions, and human resources.  While that approach works to strengthen public health systems and to tackle existing diseases, reducing the risk of future pandemics will require a substantially different approach.  As the PREDICT project has shown, there are ways to use data, research, and technology to proactively identify viral threats.  Using existing health science and technology to continue to fill the knowledge gap for unknown viruses will save precious lives and dollars in the future.

Thanks to the work of USAID, we have a strong basis of knowledge on which to expand this critical research.  While the large pool of viral threats lying dormant in animals has not changed, human interaction with wildlife has.  And in this increasingly globalized and densely populated world, where it is easier than ever for zoonotic diseases to rapidly spread across regions and continents, it is essential that the international community focus on finding innovative ways to reduce pandemic risk.

One approach is through a global viral discovery effort, in which countries share data on previously unknown viruses, which will transform the fight against pandemic threats from a reactive to a proactive undertaking.  This is not a technological challenge; it is matter of political will and resources.  It will require commitments from governments around the world to collect and share data on previously unknown viruses.  And while I recognize that is easier said than done, better equipping humanity to protect itself against catastrophic pandemics is an investment we cannot afford not to make.

# # # # #

Press Contact

David Carle: 202-224-3693